Friday, March 28, 2014

About Those Weekend Workshops

Weekend Workshops

I've not blogged for a month, on purpose, because I wanted to advertise my class at the St. Louis Tionol, April 11, 2014.  This will be my first class teaching beginner and intermediate players and, if my experience is any indicator, it will be a little chaotic.
Because I am not a big name Irish Tenor Banjo player I expect the class to be small, no more than four students, but I'm not discouraged since my last class with Gerry O'Connor only had five students.
What I want to do in this column is to talk about the value of weekend workshops.
I'm sure a lot of you have had this experience.  My favorite ones are held at a single on campus venue, usually for three to seven days and include not only a banjo class, but plenty of other things to do such as sessions, meet-and-greets, and seminars or other classes.   The most important thing I get from them is the fellowship and opportunity to meet some of my favorite musicians.
My first motivation, however, is to go for the classes and to meet with the teacher and to try and bring back some of the main points of the classes.  Over the years with Mel Bay and now with this blog I have presented various videos of many of the great players.   I always ask permission to do this and as a result, I have more videos than reach the public.  The class I am  teaching will use a lot of this material as background for my class.
In a  totally different life, I am a writer for  Shotgun Sports Magazine.  My articles cover mental training and sports psychology much of which is pertinent to being a musician.  In fact I draw on my knowledge of music for many of the articles since the processes of learning to become a champion are the same as those that a musician goes through in order to become expert at their music. 
Shotgun shooters will often go to weekend seminars and immerse themselves in the presence of a great shooter while burning a lot of powder trying to shoot targets.  The experience is often exhilarating and, in the short term, fruitful as many shooters take home some improvement.  What is also common is that the improvement shown in the weekend is ephemeral and does not last long enough to be there when the next workshop comes around.
There are several reasons for this: weekends are not a coaching experience even though you are coached.  Most of the time the coach is using a system that is not the same as the shooter's and there is a lot lost in translation.  Lastly, unless the classes are very small, there is usually a wide continuum of skills and the least and sometimes the most skilled are given short shrift because the teacher responds to the mean.
In addition some teachers are not prepared and "wing it" by teaching tune after tune with no reference to the student issues or  they "demonstrate" ad nauseum at a level that is too sophisticated for the audience.  Others are well prepared with lesson plans, goals, and an idea about what students want.
One of the ways that teachers try to find out the general level of the class is to have them play a tune.  My experience has been that when I try to do this, my frequency of brain farts increases exponentially and not only do I try and play a tune I just learned yesterday (with disastrous results) but I freeze up and can't play a triplet.  In a small class this is not a problem as it quickly becomes obvious what level each player has.  In a big class this can lead to more problems.
I suspect that this will not change very much although I have noticed a significant increase in the level of expertise in the students in classes I have attended recently.  The ideal is to find a class with a really good teacher.  These days the teachers I have had all have been much better than teachers (some of them the same people) in the past and I don't hear the same complaints I heard four years ago.  I suspect that one of the reasons is that the students have advanced enough that they are able to glean information and get results even from the worst teachers.
This brings up an interesting point, you can only learn a  small amount of information in these circumstances no matter how much information is offered or how well you do in the class.  The reason is simple, these weekends are basically one night stands.   There is no possibility of developing a relationship with the teacher since that would require a long term interaction, practice and then critique.  A music teacher will have this relationship with you as long as you take regular lessons and practice.   In this long term experience you are able to set goals, learn from mistakes and track your progress through testing and feedback. 
On the other hand, a weekend experience is none of these so your goals have to be a little different.  I like to use a workshop as a an opportunity to work on a specific problem.  When I say specific, I mean a problem that can be looked at and resolved (or an answer arrived at) in the time that you have with your teacher.  Any long term situation such as learning to play a musical instrument is basically a string of problems that have to be solved.  Beginners are often overwhelmed by the amount of work and the complexity of such an undertaking, but in the end it is still a step by step journey in which you solve each problem as they come along.  The scary thing about starting out is that beginners are ignorant of the direction they have to go.
What attracts most people to any style of music is the performance of experts who are technically able and have an attractive style that compels listeners to pay attention.  Beginning musicians want to play like their heroes, but are stymied by lack of technique and any understanding of the music from a musician's perspective.  Talent helps, but the whole package is only attained by hard work and good modeling - teachers help a lot and if you have a chance to find someone, even for a weekend, who can help, you are ahead of the game.
So a beginner needs to come in to a weekend knowing that they can get a specific problem solved, but they don't know what it is that can help them.  Intermediate players usually know what they need, but will ask for too much.  Expert players, ironically, know that they need to have the master look at their style and technique and make suggestions that tweak them towards improvement.
In other words, it is usually beneficial to ask the teacher for some hints (provided they haven't already figured out what will help in general then you are ahead of the game) and go with those suggestions.
Sometimes you will find that you won't agree with what the teacher says but remember that although you may be right, it is often the teacher who is able to be more objective and since they probably are not a friend (or enemy) they don't have an axe to grind and are most likely more aware of what you need than you are.
Once you sort out what you want from the workshop, then you have to get what you need from the teacher early in the game.  I call this the prime lesson, the one that resonates for you and the one you practice (if possible) while there.  The rest of the time you need to make sure you record everything just in case you missed a crucial issue.  It is assumed, foolishly perhaps, that you will take these pearls home and work on them later on.
A good teacher will offer something you can use, even if it is not spot on just for you.  In the case of a large class (over six) you may have to parse out what will be best for you.  For beginners it is a little hard, but I think that anything that helps you learn the music (and some technique) is best.  For intermediate or expert level students it is easier to see what strikes you as that "thing you have to learn" and then go with it.  What ever happens or whoever teaches the class, you have to make a decision about what you can learn even if the teacher is terrible because you can still see how a master works if nothing else and take cues from his or her style.

Here is a master at work, Claudine Langille of Gypsy Reel and Touchstone.  She learned from Charlie Piggot who was one of the early banjo masters but had to change to accordion when he injured his hand in an accident.   I suspect that I took his last class at the Milwaukee Irishfest many years ago when he was bullied (my word) into giving a banjo class well after the accident.
This is a portion of a video  by markhbass ( to show Claudine's great old school style that still rocks.

Mike Keyes
28 March 2014